Taking its audience back to 1960s Montreal, the documentary film Ninth Floor is rooted in a time of radical social change that centred members of the Black community. Written and directed by Mina Shum, the film dives deep into the infamous Sir George Williams Affair (SGWA) that saw a group of university students occupy the computer room at Sir George Williams University – now Concordia – after the administration failed to address students’ claims that a professor at the school, Perry Anderson, was guilty of racism. This followed a series of occurrences in which Perry continuously failed students of colour in his biology class. What was at first a peaceful demonstration quickly escalated with the arrival of the Montreal riot police, the breakout of a fire, and the chanting of racial slurs by onlookers.
The film examines the viewpoints of several activists that were directly involved in the event as well as members of the “new generation,” which includes everyone from the children of these activists to young members of the Montreal Black community at large. Among this next generation is Nantali Indongo, a Montreal-based activist, musician and daughter of Kennedy Frederick, who was one of the six original plaintiffs and a leader in the protests.
I was able to catch up with Indongo to chat about her experiences with both the film and also the legacy of the SGWA, including its impact on her own life and music.
Jedidah Nabwangu (JN): What was your initial reaction when you were approached with this film?
Nantali Indongo (NI): What was attractive to me about this film was that I understood my voice would represent the next gen[eration], and [I’d] be able to speak a bit to what’s the reality now and to how did this event [impacted …] members of the next generation community, the Black community at large.
JN: Did you find your involvement in the film to be particularly personal? As an audience member, even, I found the film to be very intimate. At one point, even, it seems like you’re being interrogated in an interrogation room?
NI: Yes, that was a part of the secondary story that they were trying to tell; the idea of people [of colour] being watched, because people are suspicious of you, and people are suspicious of you because of a lack of integration and being uncomfortable with “the other.” […] So I think they tried to suggest some of that in […] the film.
It was an intimate experience. I think I’ve lived with this story for so long and I’ve gone through [so] many stages of how I interpreted it and how I understand my relationship to [it] that I didn’t necessarily feel hyper-emotional about it [in the film]. I remember the first time I spoke out about [the story] publicly… that was an emotional moment.
The political thing that takes precedence here is […] the language division and the growth of French Quebec identity. Everybody else’s problems […] take a way backseat, like they’re not even in the car.
JN: Would you say that now you’re looking at the affair from more of an activist point of view?
NI: I think now what I really wanted to help express in this film was [the idea of ] moving forward. [Asking questions like] “Where are we now?” and “What can we draw from this?” That was my focus.
I [also] knew my father was going to be painted as sort of a tragic hero, so to speak, because he went through a lot of challenges after [the affair]. That [image] has always been something that I didn’t really perceive him to be in some ways and I really wanted to stay clear of expressing it in that way.
JN: In the film, you mention that in your daily life, you feel you exude the same social justice energy that your dad expressed then. Is your music and work with Nomadic Massive a part of this?
NI: There are several things that come into play with what comes out in my music, be it my experience growing up here or this legacy that’s connected to me. [These things] are a huge part of how I was raised. […] This idea of justice and this idea of how to handle [my] Black identity in the context of this Canadian [and] Quebec landscape [was always present] – growing up Canadian and Caribbean at the same time, growing up in the eighties, growing up with hip hop at its birth. […] All of those things play into what I say in my music. […] And I just happened to find a group of people who were very like-minded […] so I think the stars were aligned.
And then when I pause and think about the privilege of being a musician [and] being able to get onstage, and actually getting the attention of an audience […] that’s a huge privilege. As much as there’s entertainment attached to what we do, I just feel this obligation to contribute in another way that speaks to critical thought and to things that are going on around us [which] sometimes these entertainments can be distracting from.
JN: Did you find that the choice to use Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” in the film was a good representation for what you were trying to convey?
NI: I think there’s parts of that song that definitely speak […] to the narrative that they were trying to tell [about] racial identity in Canada, how we perceive one another, and how we need to work at perceiving one another. […] So yeah, I think that song does speak to what I’m about […] in music.
JN: Had you seen any of the archival footage used in the film of your father and the other activists before getting involved?
NI: Yeah, I’d seen some, but not all of it. There was some that I’d never seen, which was great. […] I think the footage of Robert [Hubsher, a white student protester] where he’s speaking to fellow students at one point and says “We have to join [the students of colour]!” […] was really interesting to hear especially in this time, and in the past year we’ve had where we’ve talked a lot about white privilege. And here is this person addressing white privilege from forty-plus years ago.
JN: From what I know about the events, it seems very much male-dominated – it seems like there were some women involved but the overall representation of women seems kind of minimal.
NI: In some of my interviews [that were] edited out, I speak a lot about the support from Black women. In the film, we hear only from those women who were arrested [and directly involved] but there were tons of support from women outside of the university. Things like [women] just making lunches for the students. Others that were typing up letters of whatever [the students] needed. It was women who found bail money for my dad.
JN: Why do you think it’s important to speak out about the affair, even now? Some would argue that the magnitude of these issues have sharply dissipated over the years. Do you think there is still work to do in Canada and Montreal?
NI: A hundred per cent. There is always work to do. […] I think we often look to the story of Black Americans, and Canadians might feel the comfort of thinking, “we’re not as bad, they’re horrible in America with their issues of race and racism.” There was a really nice piece that was written in Maclean’s last year, in and around the Black Lives Matter movement [where] the writer expresses exactly that, that if you compare treatment of Black Americans to the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada, in some ways the treatment of Indigenous peoples is even worse than what has happened or what is happening to Black Americans still today. […] When we actually start to address […] how First Peoples are treated here, then maybe we can start to address what it’s like for other people and what racism looks like for minority groups and marginalized groups.
The political thing that takes precedence here is […] the language division and the growth of French Quebec identity. Everybody else’s problems […] take a way backseat, like they’re not even in the car. The danger in not including or paying attention to the lived experiences of other groups in Montreal is that we perpetuate things in schools and institutions that then make people who are victims of racism [and] marginalization feel unequipped to even try to begin the battle.
JN: Trying to sum up everything, what message do you hope the audience takes with them after watching the film?
NI: Overall, I just appreciate that this story is out there in this way and that it’s painted as a part of Canadian, Quebec and Montreal history.
Ninth Floor is screening at Cinema du Parc until January 25. Screenings are daily at 5:20 p.m.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Talk Black is a column that seeks to engage in anti-racist culture writing, addressing art, music, events, and more. Jedidah Nabwangu can be reached at email@example.com.